Thursday, August 18, 2011

The Apes of Wrath

Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord:
He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored;
He hath loosed the fateful lightning of His terrible swift sword:
His truth is marching on.
- "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" (1862)

They don't make them like they used to. The Battle Hymn of the Republic was a blockbuster in its day. Today it is a relic of a society that used to take such volcanic Christian religious imagery a lot more seriously. Still, it's not without a few distant relatives in the modern era.

Science fiction is one of the closest secular equivalents to the spectacular prophetic visions of the Christian faith. Befitting the atheistic bent of American secularism, these newfangled prophecies are almost always pessimistic and tend to be unintentionally silly. The 1968 film Planet of the Apes, steeped in evolutionary themes and imagery, is the epitome of science fiction as godless prophecy. Simultaneously ridiculous and haunting, Chuck Heston's famous last words, spoken upon the realization that mankind brought its extinction on itself, are nicely representative of the film's message to the humans of the day: "You maniacs! You blew it up! Ah, damn you! God damn you all to hell!"

Returning to scene of the apocalypse 43 years later, the recently released film Rise of the Planet of Apes (ROTPA) stays true to its fatalistic roots, but discards the despairing tone of its predecessor in favor of an infectious and bizarrely misplaced optimism. This is not to say that ROTPA spares humanity from its horrible fate. Rather, it takes up Monty Python's injunction to look on the bright side of death.

In ROTPA, humanity's dismal future is a subplot, a colorful backdrop for the exhilirating ascension of a new master species of ape. Indeed, mankind barely even has a hand in the species suicide predicted in the original. The (self-destructive) power the original reserved to humans, ROTPA surrenders to the wise, guiding force of natural selection. Man's demise is reduced to a twist of fate, a Darwinian nudge to expedite the rise of the fitter new species.

ROTPA's human ensemble is a sadsack assortment of fools and weaklings. The brilliant scientist (who carries water as the protagonist until the ape matures) is powerless to influence events once his brain-serum sets them in motion. His father, an Alzheimers' patient, is representative of his fellow humans: confused, mostly harmless and ultimately doomed. Even the villains - the scientist's profit-obsessed CEO, his meddlesome neighbor, and the abusive primate-keeper - are terribly overmatched once the apes decide to make their stand.

Caesar the chimp is the film's star, and a bright one at that. His journey from wide-eyed innocent to mighty tribal chieftain, despite its underlying absurdity, recalls William Wallace in Braveheart. So charismatic is he, and so sympathetic his situation, that theatric audiences are moved to tears at his plight (my sister-in-law cried five times) and to cheer his successes. This mass appeal is especially bizarre in that Caesar's character arc transforms him from man's best friend to a militant (though civilized) ape supremacist. Under his leadership, barbarous apes reveal themselves not only to be bigger and stronger than their human oppressors, but smarter, more valorous, and even more virtuous.

When the film's final conflict concludes with the heavily-armed humans thoroughly routed by empowered apes, it is clear that this is no tragedy. The film, and its enraptured audience, celebrate the humans' shocking defeat as a much-needed changing of the guard. The intelligent apes are the new chosen people.

And why should we cry for the humans? They (or is it we?) had their time. Stripped of Imago Dei, there is nothing inherently special about humans, other than the unique power of our brain. Once the scientist let that birthright slip out of their grip (though, in their defense, an Alzheimers' cure is a better return than red pottage), their supremacy was finished. For the new wine of Darwinian progress, we humans are just old wineskins.